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Johnson v. Ok-Doc Board of Corrections

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

October 23, 2019

JOHN LEE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
OK-DOC BOARD OF CORRECTIONS; MICHAEL ROACH, Chairman of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Board of Corrections, Defendants.[1]

          OPINION AND ORDER

          TERENCE C. KERN, United States District Judge.

         This is a civil rights action. Before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 37). Plaintiff John Lee Johnson filed a response in opposition to the motion (Dkt. 40). For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' motion.

         BACKGROUND

         In 1997, a jury convicted Johnson, in the District Court of Tulsa County, No. CF-97-3991, of four counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape by instrumentation, two counts of forcible sodomy, and two counts of kidnapping. Dkt. 21-1, at 2. The trial court adopted the jury's sentencing recommendations, imposed a 1, 000-year prison sentence for each conviction, and ordered the sentences to be served consecutively. Id.; Dkt. 11, at 2, 4. Johnson is eligible to be considered for parole. Dkt. 40, at 14; Dkt. 37, at 8. Johnson receives monthly income from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), either through work assignments or incentive pay, and from “wages earned through private employment.” Dkt. 40, at 15-16. In accordance with Okla. Stat. tit. 57, § 549(A)(5) and ODOC policy OP-120230(I)(A)(2), the ODOC deposits 20% of Johnson's monthly income into a mandatory savings account. Dkt. 21-2, at 3; Dkt. 37, at 3; Dkt. 40, at 14-16. Funds from Johnson's savings account are payable to him “upon normal discharge.” Dkt. 21-2, at 3; Okla. Stat. tit. 57, § 549(A)(5). As amended in 2014, Okla. Stat. tit. 57, § 549(A)(5) provides an exemption from the mandatory-savings rule for inmates who are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Dkt. 11, at 4; Dkt. 21-2, at 3; Dkt. 37, at 3.

         Johnson commenced this action in July 2017, by filing a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights complaint (Dkt. 1). He filed an amended complaint (Dkt. 11) in November 2017. Johnson claims Defendants' enforcement of Okla. Stat. tit. 57, § 549(A)(5) violates his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection because the statute exempts inmates serving sentences of LWOP from the mandatory-savings rule but does not also exempt inmates like Johnson who are serving lengthy term-of-years sentences and “have no realistic chance for parole.” Dkt. 11, at 4-5. Johnson contends there is “no logical or sensible justification for this disparity.” Id. at 5.

         Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 37) on April 15, 2019. Johnson filed a timely response in opposition to the motion (Dkt. 40) on May 24, 2019.

         DISCUSSION

         Defendants style their motion as one seeking summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Dkt. 37. However, within the summary judgment motion, Defendants also urge the Court to dismiss Johnson's equal-protection claim. Id. at 4-6. The Court rejects Defendants' arguments for dismissal, but agrees with Defendants that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         I. Dismissal

         Defendants seek dismissal of Johnson's equal-protection claim on two grounds. First, they argue that the ODOC, as an arm of the State, is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Dkt. 37, at 4-5. Second, they argue that Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), bars Johnson's claim. Id. at 5-6. Neither argument is persuasive.

         A. Eleventh Amendment immunity

         Defendants first question this Court's subject-matter jurisdiction and contend that “all claims made by [Johnson] should be dismissed in their entirety” because Johnson sued the ODOC and the ODOC is an arm of the State protected by Eleventh Amendment immunity. Dkt. 37, at 4-5. In asserting Eleventh Amendment immunity, Defendants dispute Johnson's contention that Ex parte Young, 323 U.S. 670 (1944), permits Johnson to proceed with his claim. Id. at 5; Dkt. 40, at 7-9. Specifically, Defendants argue that Ex parte Young does not apply because Johnson did not sue any state officials, other than Governor Fallin who was previously dismissed as a defendant. Dkt. 37, at 5.

         The Eleventh Amendment generally bars “suits in federal court against a state by its own citizens or by citizens of another state.” Eastwood v. Dep't of Corr., 845 F.2d 627, 631 (10th Cir. 1988); U.S. Const. amend. XI. And, as an arm of the State, the ODOC is protected by Eleventh Amendment immunity. Eastwood, 846 F.2d at 631. But, for two reasons, the Court finds the Eleventh Amendment does not bar Johnson's equal-protection claim. First, Johnson did not sue the ODOC. Rather, in his amended complaint, he sued Governor Mary Fallin and the ODOC's Board of Corrections. Dkt. 11, at 1. By order filed January 16, 2018, the Court dismissed Governor Fallin as a defendant, finding Johnson's claim against her was barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Dkt. 13, at 4-8. In doing so, the Court explained that, under Ex parte Young, the proper defendant would be a state official with “some connection” to enforcement of Okla. Stat. tit. 57, § 549(A)(5). Id. at 6-7 (quoting Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. at 157). The Court found that the Board has a duty to enforce that statute, concluded that Johnson could proceed with his claim against the Board, and directed Johnson to submit service documents. Dkt. 13, at 7-8. As directed, Johnson submitted a summons and a U.S. Marshal service form and, on both forms, he identified Michael Roach, the Board's chairman, as the defendant to be served. Dkts. 15, 16. Roach was served on February 15, 2018, see Dkt. 16, and, on March 5, 2018, the Board's former counsel, an Assistant Attorney General with the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, entered his appearance as counsel “for Defendant: Michael Roach.” Dkt. 17. That same day, the Assistant Attorney General filed a motion requesting a stay, requesting an order directing the ODOC to file a special report, and identifying himself as Roach's attorney. Dkt. 18, at 3. Thus, contrary to Defendants' position, Johnson brought his suit for prospective injunctive relief against an appropriate state official, see Dkt. 37, at 5, and Ex parte Young applies. See Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. at 157; Muscogee (Creek) Nation v. Pruitt, 669 F.3d 1159, 1167 (10th Cir. 2012).

         Second, Johnson's failure to identify Roach as a defendant in his amended complaint does not bar application of Ex parte Young. Because Plaintiff appears pro se, the Court must liberally construe his pleadings. Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (1991). And, “in a pro se case when the plaintiff names the wrong defendant in the caption or when the identity of the defendants is unclear from the caption, courts may look to the body of the complaint to determine who the intended and proper defendants are.” Trackwell v. U.S. Gov't, 472 F.3d 1242, 1243-44 (10th Cir. 2007). Here, while Johnson did not specifically name Michael Roach as a defendant in either the caption or the body of his amended complaint, he did identify the Board as a defendant and he made clear that he was seeking prospective injunctive relief. Moreover, he corrected his failure to name one or more specific members of the Board when he submitted service documents identifying Roach as the defendant. Given the procedural history of this case, the Court finds it reasonable to construe Johnson's pro se pleadings, along with the service documents, as Johnson's attempt to bring his claim against a state official with “some connection” to enforcement of the statute he challenges. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. at 157. Furthermore, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure expressly provide that “[m]isjoinder of parties is not a ground for dismissing an action. On motion or on its own, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 21; see also Travelers Indem. Co. v. U.S. of Am. for Use of Constr. Specialties Co., 382 F.2d 103, 105-06 (10th Cir. 1967) (discussing “amendments which involve the adding of parties” and reasoning that the purpose of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is not “furthered by denying the addition of a party who has a close identity of interest with the old party when the added party will not be prejudiced”). Here, the Court finds that Roach, who is sued in his official capacity as the Board's chairman and who was served with a copy of ...


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